What I’m Reading

Chicago, Culture, Personal Add comments

After several months of frantic flyarounds for my day job, things have slowed down a bit and I’ve gotten to stay home in Chicago the past several weeks.  What a luxury!  And part of the upside of getting a breather from work-related stress is catching up on my reading.  I assume that if you’re reading my blog, you are as preoccupied with art, culture, travel, and food as I am (otherwise, you’d be over at TMZ.com).  So I encourage you to join me in savoring and languorously perusing two of the best sources of writing I’ve stumbled across in the past few weeks: the impressively thoughtful new print publication, The Chicagoan, which is a must-read for anyone concerned with the vibrant history and artistic life of our great city Chicago; and the newly-launched website Roads & Kingdoms, which is essential for those of you who think about food within its cultural and socio-political context, engagingly put together for the transmedia-savvy 21st century reader.

When I first opened my copy of the first issue of The Chicagoan, my breath was literally taken away.  It is printed on high-quality, glossy stock paper, and generously peppered with vividly-colored, exhilaratingly-laid out photographs and illustrations.  The breadth and depth, and the uncompromisingly high quality of the pieces selected by Editor-in-chief JC Grabel and his editorial team are just stupendous.  There’s the magazine’s centerpiece: a riveting oral history, culled by Playboy executive editor Josh Schollmeyer from their closest colleagues, of the complicated, contentious yet begrudgingly affectionate relationship of two of the greatest film critics to have come out of Chicago, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel (cleverly entitled “Enemies: A Love Story” which is also the title of the 1989 film from Paul Mazursky, based on the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story).  There’s the stunning collection of photos from the website NoPromiseofSafety.com, which chronicles the adventures of a group of anonymous, rogue skyscraper climbers, and depicts Chicago as a ruggedly-dazzling urban metropolis.  There’s Ling Ma’s endearingly honest profile of jazz musician and Pitchfork Music Festival director Mike Reed.  There’s playwright and author Joe Meno’s enthrallingly quirky “The Secret Society of Alphonse F!”, sort of like a (500) Days of Summer, with less meet-cuteness and more ruthlessly truthful human observations. The writing is always engaging but never flowery, high-falutin, or insincere (some of the other articles focus on the city’s emerging coffee connoisseurs, architect Jean Gang and her ambitious plan for reinventing Northerly Island, and chef Tara Lane’s transformation from fine-dining pastry chef to Hull House food preservationist).  But what I love about The Chicagoan, in addition to its unabashed celebration of the cultural genius of Chicago, is that the editorial viewpoint and the exceptional writing truly captures the essence of the city: artistic and innovative, yet unpretentious, down-to-earth, plainspoken, confident.  I cannot wait for the second issue! Unfortunately, I believe the first issue is now sold-out. (The Chicagoan will be published bi-annually but digital content will be available year-round on its website, www.thechicagoanmedia.org,  and corresponding smart phone and tablet apps).

Anyone who has a half-way decent camera and who has enough mechanical aptitude to  point and shoot at a restaurant plate seem to be calling themselves food bloggers nowadays.  In my opinion, if there is one overused and quite abused term, it’s “food blog”, which often turns out to be a collection of food pictures and two sentence paragraphs that contain the words “amazing” and “delish”.  The new site, Roads & Kingdoms (www.roadsandkingdoms.com), with its exciting use of multi-media platforms, its global scope, and its erudite, but clear-eyed perspectives on how politics, society, and cross-cultures inform cuisine, is as much a food blog as Meryl Streep is an actress or Ferran Adria is a cook.  Seriously, there is no comparison.  The site is run by Nathan Thornburgh, who is a contributing writer at Time, and Matt Goulding, the former food editor of Men’s Health.  These guys, with their extensive travel experience, wide-ranging interests, and their affable curiosity and pointed insights on world issues, cultural norms, and culinary practices are the guys you’d want to have at  every meal (actually, they’re guys you’d like to marry, except that are both already attached, drats!). They write beautifully, confidently, and smartly –like hotter, less snarkier, more brazen Tony Bourdains.  I spent an entire afternoon just ravenously imbibing the terrific content on Roads & Kingdoms: from concise yet idiosyncratic videos on their Burma trip, which included Nathan’s bout with dysentery after eating bad crab, and a primer on street food eating featuring Matt and Naomi Duguid (who also wrote a great piece on Chiang Mai street food in the latest issue of Lucky Peach), to astounding photo collections of Hong Kong and Cuba’s campo or countryside, to perfect capsule posts on specific dishes, from the avant-garde take on beef tartare at Michelin-starred El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, to the simple yet brilliant preparation of coconut crab at a seaside shack in Kep, Cambodia. I love the sense of specific place that Thornburgh and Goulding’s writing evoke; I love the experiences they portray (check out this post on Georgian khachapuri, a type of pastry, which is part travelogue, part memoir, part food writing, part history lesson); I love the way they talk to their readers: always smart, approachable, assured, sometimes self-deprecating, and never condescending despite their qualifications. Great job, gentlemen!

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